Jesus on Prayer
Perhaps like me you have come across the statement: “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things”. A fine sentiment, but perhaps it leaves out one factor. Prayer can only find its meaning for us if we too see ourselves as people available to help bring about that change.
If we were to pause for a moment and think of occasions of worship with the strange mixture of sublime and heart-felt prayer on one hand and on the other the repetitious and empty posturing that sometimes passes for prayer, perhaps at the very least there are times we should admit we are a little too casual in our approach.
It is not as if Jesus did not leave us with some good places to start.
When his disciples asked how they might go about prayer he answered with the prayer that in our decorated and extended form we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
In Luke Ch 11 we read Lord teach us to pray they said and he replied….from verse 2
“2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Have you ever wondered why Luke’s version is much shorter than the version customarily used in most mainstream protestant Churches today?
This points to an underlying problem. Here is Jesus showing us how to approach prayer, yet straight away his followers want to add bits to make it more impressive. Then, if that wasn’t enough, we seem to be forgetting there was also that other passage where he condemned the Pharisees for their repetitive showy prayers. Well then, why risk repeating our version of Jesus’ prayer so often that it can be said without thought or meaning?
Don’t forget it is not just what is in this prayer, but also what is left out, that gives the prayer its special character.
We might also note that in the original there is minimal asking, and perhaps more surprisingly to some, very few words of adulation.
Assuming we are following Jesus’ example and are addressing this to whatever Father in heaven may represent, we might remember while the term Father may well only be a metaphor for what we are trying to express, yet isn’t it also true it would be entirely inappropriate to address our actual human father with excessive words of praise? Even if it were only an earthly father would we be really so naïve to hope our father, thus flattered, will overlook our actions which after all are a much better guide to what is in our hearts. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” Jesus seems to have sympathy with that point of view.
The bit from the Lord’s Prayer that grounds it in action is the bit where we say the equivalent of “Forgive us our sins – and the kicker – as we forgive those who sin against us.” If we are not inclined to forgive others, that is the bit of the Lord’s Prayer we should hope never gets answered. Some of you may know the poet Robert Frost once suggested that the phrase might equally be, “Forgive me my nonsense as I also forgive the nonsense of those who think they talk sense.”
For what then should we pray? Following Jesus example suggests we should not focus too much on our own desires.
I have always been very much attracted to St Francis of Assisi who has captured the selfless nature of effective prayer in his own model prayer.
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
– this prayer appears to pick up one of the key points Jesus was also making.
I guess it is hardly surprising that our own dilemmas are going to get some of our attention in our own praying. However please notice that in the Lord’s Prayer, the asking for daily bread seems very minimal – and perhaps in a world where many must go hungry we have no right to ask much more than this.
I think Mahatma Gandhi was on to something when he said “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” …… what was that last bit again?….It is better in prayer to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.
Once we accept the obligation to have our prayer reflect what is in our hearts, I wonder if this might give us a sense of caution for how we might phrase our prayers and for that matter the sorts of things we might ask in prayer.
It has always seemed to me that the most dubious prayers are what we might call petitionary prayers. If we behave as if God is a being who sits outside nature and who will provide a different outcome if asked to do so, it seems to me we are in danger of living in cloud cuckoo land.
It has also seemed to me that the natural world is entirely governed by what some would call the laws of nature. Gravity is a property of mass, the weather follows the principles of physics and earthquakes and storms once thought of as magic or the fury of the Gods could not have been more natural in their causes. Nor have I personally ever encountered anything that makes me suspect otherwise.
Certainly I have seen Yogic flyers – in ecstatic trances bouncing up and down on spring mattresses – but their claim to be actually flying looks to my untutored eye as sheer delusion. They are certainly bouncing and appear to be making effective use of their rubber mattresses as substitute trampolines but when they bounce up, they promptly come down again no matter what they might claim or feel themselves to be doing.
When the Wizard of Christchurch infuriated the local New Zealand fundamentalists by indulging in what they assumed to be black magic by doing a rain dance to break a drought it also seemed to me that it was not exactly magic that his rain dance should coincide with a local weather office prediction of imminent rain.
Praying for rain or perhaps more commonly praying for fine weather to coincide with some function such as a wedding of Church picnic is harmless enough but again – and only from brief personal experience – I have yet to see a consequent change of weather that does not follow from the weather conditions in the atmosphere.
There is also that age old conundrum – would a God of Love be kinder to a baby who had been prayed over than one who wasn’t? When it came to the plague, also known as the Black Death, despite copious prayers and chalking crosses on the doors to keep the black death at bay, the population of Europe and England died by the thousand – and continued to do so intermittently until some wise observer of nature decided to kill all the rats which we now know were carrying the fleas which in turn carried the disease.
Please note however I am not saying that we should not pray for the sick. It is not so much that I believe we will necessarily alter the course of nature in interceding on the sick person’s behalf, but on the other hand I do know that brain activity of specific types can alter our own state of physiology. Prayer and meditation have been studied with brain scans and with stress relief studies and both sets of studies appear to show that there are beneficial physiological effects of that sort of prayer including a return to the steady state (called homeostasis) and the accompanying feelings of calm. Perhaps this fits with that great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he said “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
But if we only pray because we want good health outcomes for those who suffer, there are no guarantees.
In all honesty, having read numerous studies measuring the effects of targeted prayer on patients, such as groups of people praying for those having suffered heart disease or praying for those undergoing treatment for cancer, while some studies appear to show the health benefits for the patients, other studies are unable to show that the prayer helps, and I do not believe any good purpose is served by only noticing the studies that support the case for an interventionist God.
On the other hand I can see every reason for praying for others in that it helps us focus our concern on those who need our care. If you like this is also self-benefit in that such thinking will shape our attitudes of compassion which seems to be the heart of Christianity. This does not of course therefore mean that we should limit our concerns to our prayers. Compassion needs expression in acts of care and kindness as well as in spoken sentiment.
I guess that like the Lord’s prayer, the Prayer of St Francis only becomes real when our lives start to reflect its intention. Prayers prayed in Church might sound impressive but they will not necessarily affect what happens outside the place of worship.
We only need to look to our newspapers. Lots of prayers in the USA – yet what do we read?… Shootings in the USA continue unabated. And what of those unwanted refugees dying unassisted in the Mediterranean – despite many sincere church goers praying across Europe. Thousands continue to die in Idlib in Syria, and in Yemen and in many other places but remember they have prayers five times a day in the mosques and many eloquent preachers praying in numerous churches. And so it goes on.
A ramping up of violence in Libya, bombs continuing in Iraq – and then we say, Lord make me an instrument of your peace. There is nothing wrong with the prayer and every reason for praying it – but it also needs to start to find its meaning at ground level, in the way we encounter those we meet – and the way we talk about those described as enemies.
There may be nothing we can do about what happens in other countries but we can and indeed must start with our own attitudes. Remember the prayer: it is indeed in giving we receive. It is whether or not we pardon, forgive, and sow peace – and whether or not we are prepared to see enemies as genuine neighbours, to ask for our forgiveness as we forgive. Then perhaps that gives us the right to make the Prayer of St Francis – or the Lord’s Prayer our own. AMEN.
(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. Comments and alternative views are always welcome.)